Oklahoma: a swirling storm of anti-human prejudice

As people in Oklahoma heroically dealt with their tornado disaster, observers were busy pinning the blame for it on greedy mankind.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics Politics

A huge, 190 miles-per-hour tornado hit the suburbs of Oklahoma City on Monday afternoon, killing 24, injuring hundreds, and leaving the area looking like a wasteland. Survivors may have their lives, but not their homes, cars or belongings.

People across America were stunned to see such images of devastation. We watched heroic rescue workers search under rubble to try to find people feared trapped. It seemed especially cruel that the epicenter of the destruction was in Moore, Oklahoma, whose people had suffered one of the most violent tornadoes not that long ago, in 1999.

The discussion in response to this natural disaster was revealing of a prevailing doom-and-gloom tendency to expect the worst today, as well as a strange desire to blame ourselves for the destruction brought about by nature.

The sense from the media coverage was that Oklahoma showed that the US is exceptionally vulnerable to, and unprepared for, violent weather disasters. Terms like ‘post-apocalyptic’ were used to describe the post-storm situation in Oklahoma. Many seemed to jump to the conclusion that it was the worst tornado of all time. The original report of the number dead on Monday was 91, but then we learned by Tuesday that this was overstated, and the number was reduced to 24. Of course, even one death is tragic, and the toll may rise over time, but it seems somewhat odd that there was an expectation of much worse than actually occurred.

Almost on cue, environmentalists and politicians tried to pin the blame for the tornado on human-caused climate change, and started calling for their favoured actions to address it, such as cutting emissions (in other words, de-industrialisation).

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer said to the Senate floor after hearing of the Oklahoma tornado, ‘This is climate change. We were warned about extreme weather, not just hot weather but extreme weather.’ Another Democrat, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, made similar comments, and later apologised.

This has now become the kneejerk response to any storm. After Hurricane Sandy, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo said he told President Obama it seemed like ‘we have a 100-year flood every two years now’. He added: ‘These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing.’

Except they haven’t been increasing – neither hurricanes nor tornadoes. ‘Tornado data does not reveal any clear trends in tornado occurrence or deaths that would suggest a clear tie to global warming, at least not yet’, writes Andrew Freeman of Climate Central. Even Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and not one to be shy about promoting climate change fears, said of the Oklahoma tornado: ‘One really cannot relate an event of this nature to human-induced climate change. It’s just not possible. Scientifically, that’s not valid.’

Beyond the climate change blame game, there was also an attempt to blame people for not planning properly. Immediate speculation following the tornado centred on whether the towns around Oklahoma City were adequately prepared, given that the region is known for tornadoes. For example, the city of Moore ‘has no ordinance requiring storm-safe rooms in public or private facilities, and the city itself lacked a community shelter’, we were told. And according to the Associated Press, the two schools in Moore did not have tornado ‘safe rooms’.

Despite the prevalence of tornadoes and lack of certain defences to counter them, it is easy and understandable to look backwards and assume such a tragedy was just a matter of time in a state like Oklahoma. But, as they say, hindsight is 20-20. Strong tornadoes like Monday’s – despite environmentalists’ claims of an increase in ‘extreme weather’ – are still rare. Yet in the public discussion there is an attempt to exaggerate the degree to which we are all at risk, and how vulnerable we must be. I’m all for investing in preventative measures, but not if the case made for them is to be built on hype and fear. Moreover, while taking sensible precautions, we also have to recognise that such steps won’t eliminate all risk. The Associated Press cites Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management: ‘Ashwood says a shelter would not necessarily have saved more lives at the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children sheltering in above-ground classrooms were killed. He says no disaster mitigation measure is absolute.’

What’s worse than criticising a lack of preparedness for the Oklahoma tornado? Blaming economic growth. In his New York Times blog ‘Dot Earth’, Andrew Revkin says tornado-prone regions like Oklahoma have a ‘deep vulnerability resulting from runaway growth’. He argues that it is important to understand how ‘demographic shifts and regulatory gaps’ have ‘put so many people in harm’s way’, and cites the booming growth in Moore’s population (from 18,761 in 1970 to 55,081 in 2010). But it’s odd, to say the least, to blame the large number of casualties from a tornado on an increase in the number of people choosing to live in that area.

Revkin also links back to a 2011 post he wrote about a spate of tornados in the South, when he blamed ‘the terrible death counts’ on ‘the substantial growth in Southern populations in recent decades, a dearth of basements and the enduring popularity of mobile homes’. But ‘runaway growth’ in population or the economy is not the issue here. The real problem is that there isn’t enough growth and development, not that there’s too much. This insufficient growth leads to low incomes, which means people end up buying mobile homes rather than proper ones. Greater economic growth, in contrast, would not only mean more stable homes, but also more resources to help people cope in the aftermath of tornadoes.

Rather than using a natural disaster like the Oklahoma tornado as an excuse to vent human-blaming opinions about climate change and population growth, it would be better to focus on doing something practical, like helping Oklahoma rebuild. The stories we hear of the heroism and resiliency of the community as they respond to tragedy are the best answer to the gloom merchants who say we only have ourselves to blame for very bad weather and very bad luck.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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